First Person

Charter schools no silver bullet for integration, but a start

Last month, Jennifer Stillman shared her research on school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods as part of our Useable Knowledge feature. In her initial post, Stillman said that gentrifying neighborhoods offer a unique opportunity for racially diverse schools. She proposed two policies to facilitate that goal, including the establishment of charter schools who prioritize a diverse student body. Today, Stillman responds to questions and comments by readers.

The comments posted in response to my recent GothamSchools Q&A on gentrification and schools were very helpful in pushing my thinking, and I greatly appreciate those readers who took the time to engage with my work. For those who read my interview but did not follow the back and forth in the comments section, let me quickly summarize what I heard from readers.

Two major themes were repeatedly expressed in some form: 1) that charter schools are not the answer to school integration, especially those being proposed by the Tapestry Project, an organization many of the commenters said they find highly suspect because of its affiliation with Eva Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, and 2) that the voice of the non-gentry is not being given its due, and that poor children of color and their families risk losing out during the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods.

I will start by addressing concern number two, as the point of my research, which was probably not adequately communicated in my short interview, was to understand the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods for the benefit of both gentry and non-gentry.

My research focus on the school choice process of gentry parents is because I believe, due to their greater access to resources, they are the ones who must choose to integrate for it to happen. But, as I expressed in response to one reader’s comments, it isn’t just the white, middle-class parents who would benefit from diverse schools. It is the non-white, poor children in our city who are hurt the most by the persistence of mostly segregated public school options. Diverse schools will not be white schools. They will be diverse. And racial and socio-economic diversity has been shown in other research to benefit low-income children who typically do not thrive in segregated settings. My background includes a stint as an urban high school teacher; I am not just a gentry mom. My research was inspired by my deep concern about school segregation from both perspectives.

That said, another reader’s point that poor children of color may not be served well by the gentry’s preferences, and that they actually might be better served by a school that “feels too traditional, too authoritarian in tone” for the gentry, is a point that I continue to struggle with. As I expressed to the reader, my teacher training program left me convinced that progressive, student-centered methods are most effective. And I know I want that for my own children. And I can’t help but think that what I want for my own children is what I should want for all children. But others have argued for the value of a more authoritarian style of pedagogy in certain circumstances, most notably Lisa Delpit in “Other People’s Children.” All kids learn differently, of course, but I’m not convinced that breaks down along race and class lines. Further research may or may not provide greater clarity on this point. Issues of race and class are emotional and intensely personal, and logical arguments about what should be, based on the research (including my own), are lacking in their ability to account for all of the nuanced realities of the day to day that people experience.

In response to the many concerns readers expressed about the Tapestry Project and my support for charter schools focused on integration, let me first reiterate that my goal of creating diverse schools is because I think diversity benefits all children (not only the gentry children, but also the poor children of color currently attending segregated schools). What charter schools have as a policy tool is the ability to start as new schools, which are much easier to craft into diverse schools with the right outreach efforts. Changing existing schools, though possible, is very challenging.

A recent New York Times article, “Integrating a School, One Child at a Time,” focused on magnet schools as a tool for integration. Magnet grants are given to existing public schools, which means that although they have the same freedom as charter schools to recruit from outside restrictive zone lines, they still must face the challenge of changing an existing school culture and attracting white, middle-class families to a school that has a reputation as segregated. The most successful (in terms of integration) magnet school in the Times story was the one that managed to start new by phasing out an old school. I favor charters as a possible policy tool primarily because of the newness factor. But I certainly don’t see them as some sort of silver bullet, and I realize that all approaches have drawbacks that need to be considered.

In closing, I would like to thank all GothamSchools readers for engaging in this public arena with me about a difficult, sensitive topic, and I hope those who are interested in trying to integrate schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, or those who disagree that this is an idea even worth pursuing, will continue to engage with me on my website or in person. I live in New York City and am always available for a lively debate over coffee or beer (contact information on my website).

If improving urban schools were easy, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation. I am always looking for better ways, and always trying to evolve my thinking as to what we, as a society, should be trying to do.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede